Information on the 2015-16 Essay Competition forthcoming:
“The Invisible Mountain: Why the Humanities Matter”
by Eric Tweel, U1 Philosophy and Political Science.
An abridged version of the essay was published in The Gazette on July 29, 2014. You can download a copy of the article here [in PDF]
“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”
—Paul Gauguin, 1897
The Invisible Mountain: Why the Humanities Matter
It may be that the unexamined life is not worth living, but today there remains a fierce battle over how our lives ought to be examined. In the twenty-first century the scientific method is emerging as the dominant form of intellectual activity, and the liberal arts have been put on the defensive. Every humanities student today has come across the ubiquitous question of “What do you plan do with your degree?” Founded on confident skepticism and often motivated by genuine, albeit misguided, concern, this question and the familiar interrogation which surrounds it haunts those engaged in the humanities, demanding a reaction and in some cases even a well-formulated response. Despite the intensity of this struggle nothing clear on either side has as of yet emerged, and its proper conclusion – that for economic, political, and intellectual reasons, the humanities are necessary to a healthy and worthwhile human experience – has not adequately been demonstrated. Moreover, it has not been fully considered that most critiques of the humanities rely too much on the misguided dichotomization of the “Two Cultures” of the sciences and the humanities.
The debate on the legitimacy of the humanities as an intellectual pursuit is in a simple sense nothing new. One has always needed reasons for doing things. Yet the deep admiration of the sciences and profound confidence in capitalist thought in contemporary society has pushed proponents of the humanities on the defensive in a way that demands a strong and resolute reply. Such a reply must be comprehensible to the educated public1 but should avoid confining itself to that public’s predominant assumptions, particularly the dangerous idea that the humanities ought to be avoided because they don’t produce the individuals that society wants or needs. Anyone who goes to university so that theycan satisfy their society’s wants and or needs is making a tragic mistake. Institutions of higher learning are at their greatest not when they shape students to fit within the existing framework, but when they create people who can change it for the better. It is for this purpose that the humanities is most crucial.
A purportedly ‘practical’ or ‘economic’ critique of the humanities fails in its empirical and normative forms. There is no sufficient evidence that the most financially rewarding careers are generally more accessible to people with degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) than those who study the humanities. The vast amount of statistical data gathered about the career success of university graduates gives no clear indication that the humanities are less useful in a practical vocational sense, and humanities majors tend to be just as numerous as science majors among society’s top earners.2 As well, the dynamic nature of contemporary life means that any prediction about future job prospects is little more than a crapshoot. As Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen have noted, “A generation ago, lawyers made more money than investment bankers. Today, we have too many law graduates […] and the investment banks complain about a lack of talent.”3 Thus even for the narrow-minded worshipper of individual income there is no reason to disregard the humanities.
The normative economic argument that the recent financial crisis demands “useful” degrees that will tangibly benefit society misunderstands the nature of this crisis. Not only are humanities majors not inherently less productive members of society, it is impossible to understand phenomena like financial crises without the intellectual nuance and critical thinking that is distinctive of a liberal arts education. A student of politics, history or economics is more able to productively think about solutions to our financial woes than that of physics, chemistry or mathematics. The 2008 financial crisis threw capitalism into question and has forced a revaluation of the fundamentals underlying our economic organization. Serious criticism of our current system, rather than a blind confidence in its ability to function, is what is needed most. Hypothetical policies like that of Forbes contributor Peter Cohan, who proposed to restore America’s financial vitality by cutting humanities departments in U.S. universities, couldn’t be further from the mark. The thinking encouraged by the humanities is absolutely necessary in meeting the most pressing issues of our times.
It is noteworthy that the critics of the humanities are the loudest in the United States, where a university education is far more expensive than in Canada or Europe. Given the incredible cost for higher learning in the US, and the resultant horror stories of student debt, it has been easy for American polemicists to mischaracterize liberal arts educations as luxury goods that are useful only for self- centred elites who either don’t need a serious job or will get one regardless of what they study. In this image of the humanities, the average person who is interested in Nietzsche or Homer should pursue those interests outside of professional academia. Yet the knowledge acquired from a liberal arts education is in a concrete sense the opposite of a luxury. It is a political and cultural necessity. Our current democratic form of political organization requires all citizens to have a sufficient background in politics and history to understand the underpinnings of governmental decisions, so that they can vote in a well-informed and effective way. Just as with any political regime, democracy requires its own distinctive form of education. As well, the vast interaction of different peoples that has accompanied globalization has increased the value of the appreciation of other cultures that is encouraged in the humanities. No amount of science can resolve the strong ethnic, religious and cultural conflicts that exist today. The portrayal of the humanities as an unnecessary luxury – a rhetorical illusion which takes root easily in America, where higher education is so expensive – fails to understand the deep ties between the humanities and the functioning of our society.
Those who lament the dominant trends in the humanities today may be in some ways justified in their woes, but this is only another reason why the students of tomorrow should be encouraged to engage in these disciplines. In contrast to the praises sung daily for the wonders of modern science, there is little positive being said about the humanities. Steven Hawking has declared that “philosophy is dead,”4 Philip Roth claimed in 2009 that it is “optimistic” to think anybody will be reading novels in twenty five years, and the headline of a widely read 2003 Newsweek article ran, “Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?”5 The mistake here is to confuse a school or group within a discipline with the discipline itself, the latter of which will evolve rather than dying out. Assuming that a current decline in a discipline’s popularity or influence will continue until its extinction reveals a lack of an understanding of intellectual history, which follows a non-linear progression. The very idea of a Renaissance, or ‘rebirth,’ so ingrained in Western culture, underlies the fluctuating nature of human thought. If the humanities are in disrepair, that is all the more reason to fix them.
Attempts to show that the questions the humanities have yet to solve are better answered by science have become more frequent and bolder as technology has advanced, but they either fail outright or draw heavily upon the very methods of thought which they purport to critique. Projects like Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (tellingly subtitled, “How Science Can Determine Human Values”), more than highlighting the limitations of the scientific method, make it clear that meaningful ideas about what it means to be human are only possible through an interdisciplinary effort. History reveals much about the close affinity between the humanities and the sciences. This affinity makes any criticism of either category more complicated than if they were separate, isolated areas of thought. For the vast majority of intellectual history, the distinction between the humanities and the sciences was weak at best and not explicitly recognized. Natural science only developed its current distance from philosophical inquiry in the scientific revolutions that began in the sixteenth century, and many fields now considered as having distinct methodologies and emphases emerged from philosophical and literary pursuits within the past two centuries. Among such new fields are economics, psychology, and linguistics. The common intellectual basis of the sciences and the humanities may be less visible as academic disciplines have advanced and specialized, increasing the depth of knowledge which they each contain, it remains an important feature of intellectual activity. On a historical and a logical level, the close ties between the sciences and the humanities are far stronger than the artificial barriers between them which are created by those who would attack the liberal arts as an isolated and shrinking tradition without any relevance to contemporary life.
Despite all the criticism they receive, the humanities continue to thrive in higher education and general society. That is how things ought to be. The popular myth that the humanities are a poor career choice is grounded in doubtful statistics and a misunderstanding of the purpose of education. Far from being a superfluous luxury, the humanities are fundamental in preserving and improving our political and cultural arrangements. Finally, those who argue that science can replace the humanities ignore the deep connections between the two intellectual categories. In many ways, the mountain of history on which contemporary life rests is built from the humanities, and anyone who doesn’t appreciate this fails to understand what the humanities are. Admiring the view from its peak, one might not see the mountain upon which one is standing, but this does not mean that it doesn’t exist.
1 An attempt to convert anti-intellectuals who believe that no form of education is worthwhile must address much more fundamental notions, whereas this essay is directed towards those who already think that an education can be worthwhile but challenge whether the humanities have a place within such an education.
2 Terras, M., Priego, E., Liu, A., Rockwell, G., Sinclair, S., Hensler, C., and Thomas, L. (2013). “The Humanities Matter!” Infographic, 4humanities.org/infographic.
3 Madsbjerg , Christian, and Mikkel B. Rasmussen . “We Need More Humanities Majors (Posted 2013-07-30 14:06:08).” The Washington Post [Washington, D.C.] 30 July 2013: 1. Print.
4 Zabala, Santiago, and Creston Davis. “Which philosophy is dead?.” – Opinion. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/
5 Wexler, Bruce. “Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?.” Newsweek [New York City] 5 May 2003: 1. Print.